Do you know who is serving your food?

I like food. Yes, Latvian food is wonderful and delicious but I enjoy diversity. Thai, Italian, Mexican, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian… grateful for international cuisine. In Latvia this year I have noticed two popular trends – kebab and burger.

This story is not about food though. It is about people who serve our food and about hospitality.

First story: One rainy afternoon in Riga city center, we looked for a quick bite. Noticing a new kebab restaurant, we decided that some gyros and fried potatoes would be the perfect ‘comfort’ food. I could not help but notice that two of the guys working there did not look Latvian. They were Asian but spoke fluent Latvian and were very friendly. After the meal we thanked them for the food and then casually asked where they were from.

“India”, answered the guy at the register and gave a big smile. “Well, we have never been to India but would love to visit one day”, was our reply. “Oh, you should definitely visit India. You are welcome. I can give you contacts there”, he kept smiling.

I told him that the closest I have been to India was a trip to Burma. “Burma? That is where my ancestors are from! My grandmother is from Burma and she can still speak Burmese. Are you Burmese?”, he gave me a curious look. When I said that, no, I was Latvian, I could tell he did not really believe me.

“What do you do here in Riga?”, was my next question to which he replied, “I study here. I am doing my master’s degree at the university. I like Riga and I like studying here. Working at the kebab restaurant is a part-time job.” Now it was my turn to say, “Welcome to Riga! I am glad you chose to study here.”

His name was Pravi. He asked me a second time if I was a ‘real’ Latvian and I assured him, yes.

I walked away wondering if a guy like Pravi who is educated and speaks Latvian and English, would consider staying in Latvia after finishing his studies. I don’t know his plans and I cannot offer him a job, but I can offer a sincere “Welcome to Latvia!”

The second story is from a few years ago. On one of our visits to the United States, we were invited to a Vietnamese restaurant. The guy who invited us, was praising the food and mentioned that he eats there every week.

When we ordered the food, I noticed that the waitress who spoke very little English, recognized him. “Do you want to order the usual?”, she asked and our host nodded. Later we were talking about hospitality and how easy it is to be friendly to people. As an example, I pointed to the waitress and said, “It is as simple as talking to the people who serve your food. Surely you know this waitress. What is her name?”

“I don’t know her name. We have never talked and I have never asked her name”, he was a little embarrassed. But she knew what kind of food he likes and what he wants to order!

This came to my mind recently when a friend asked for some practical ideas how to welcome people. Immigrants, refugees, international students… It can start with something as simple (and important) as this – meeting people who serve you and simply saying,

Welcome to Latvia! Nice to meet you!

Kebab

Latviski:

Man patīk ēst. Jā, latviešu ēdiens ir brīnišķīgs un garšīgs, bet man patīk daudzveidība. Taizemiešu, itāļu, libāņu, vjetnamiešu, ķīniešu, indiešu… priecājos par visām garšām. Novēroju, ka šogad Latvijā modē ir kebabi un burgeri.

Bet šis stāsts nav par ēdienu., bet gan par cilvēkiem, kas mūs apkalpo. Stāsts par viesmīlību.

Pirmais stāsts. Kādā lietainā pēcpusdienā Rīgas centrā mēs meklējām, kur varētu ātri iekost. Pamanījām jaunu kebabnīcu un nolēmām, ka giross un cepti kartupeļi būs tieši laikā. Ievēroju, ka puiši, kuri mūs apkalpoja, neizskatījās pēc latviešiem. Viņi bija no Āzijas, labi runāja latviešu valodā un ļoti laipni apkalpoja. Vēlāk mēs pateicām paldies par ēdienu un vienkārši pajautājām, no kurienes jūs esiet?

“No Indijas” atbildēja puisis pie kases un plati smaidīja. Teicu, ka nekad neesam bijuši Indijā, bet labprāt aizbrauktu. “Protams, jums jāredz Indija. Laipni lūgti! Es varu iedot kādus kontaktus!” viņš turpināja smaidīt.

Es ieminējos, ka vistuvāk Indijai ir Birma, kur esam bijuši. “Birma? Mani senči ir no turienes. Mana vecmamma ir no Birmas, un viņa prot birmiešu valodu. Vai tu arī esi no Birmas?” viņš uzmeta pētījošu skatienu. Kad teicu, ka esmu no Latvijas, vienalga nebija pārliecināts.

Prasījām, “Ko tu dari Rīgā?” … “Es šeit studēju. Esmu maģistra programmā universitātē. Man patīk Rīga un manas studijas. Kekabnīcā es piestrādāju brīvajā laikā.” Tagad bija mana kārta teikt: “Laipni lūgts Rīgā! Priecājos, ka izvēlējies studēt tieši šeit.”

Viņu sauc Pravi, un atvadoties viņš vēlreiz pārjautāja, vai tiešām esmu latviete.

Ejot projām, pie sevis nodomāju – vai tāds jaunietis kā Pravi, ar augstāko izglītību, ar labām latviešu un angļu valodas zināšanām, vēlētos palikt un strādāt Latvijā pēc studiju beigšanas? Nezinu viņa plānus, un arī darbu nevaru piedāvāt, bet vienu gan varu izdarīt. Varu patiesi teikt: “Laipni lūgts Latvijā!”

Otrs stāsts no ASV. Pirms dažiem gadiem viens paziņa uzaicināja uz vjetnamiešu restorānu. Viņam ļoti garšoja šis ēdiens un lielījās, ka ēdot tur katru nedēļu.

Kad pasūtījām ēdienus, es ievēroju, ka viesmīle, kura slikti runāja angļu valodā, viņu pazina. Viņa jautāja: “Vai vēlaties to pašu, ko parasti?” un viņš apstiprināja. Vēlak mēs sākām runāt par viesmīlību un draudzīgumu pret iebraucējiem. Kā piemēru es ieminējos par mūsu viesmīli, kura viņu atpazina. Kā šo sievieti sauc?

“Nezinu. Es nezinu viņas vārdu. Nekad neesam runājuši, un nekad neesmu jautājis.” Bet viesmīle zin, kas viņam garšo, un ko parasti vēlas pasūtīt!

Atcerējos šo gadījumu, kad nesen viens draugs lūdza praktisku padomu attiecībā uz viesmīlību. Pret imigrantiem, starptautiskiem studentiem, patvēruma meklētājiem… vārdu sakot, viesmīlība pret iebraucējiem. Tā var sākties ar tik vienkāršu lietu kā iepazīšanos ar cilvēkiem, kuri mūs apkalpo, un vienkāršiem (bet svarīgiem) vārdiem –

Laipni lūgti Latvijā! Prieks iepazīties!

Considering the flowers…

My grandmother is almost 92 and, to tell you the truth, I cannot keep up with her. Yes, she does not hear so well and moves slower, but she has so much zest for life. On her good days her energy is overflowing and I still cannot keep her pace while working in the garden. She is like a human tractor – the weeds are flying, bad roots are dug up and the ground is turned…

IMG_0664

The photo with waterlilies was taken on her 90-th birthday and she really wanted this picture. She loves her waterlilies and cannot wait for them to bloom and then to watch them open up in the morning and close in the evening. This photo describes my grandmother and her passion!

She is a Gardener. Her greatest love after God and people is flowers and beauty. Wherever I am in the world, I think of her when I see a beautiful flower or unique plant. She would stop and look at it closely and try get some seeds if possible. (It is impossible to have a quick walk through the park when I am with her.) I have brought her different seeds from around the world but most of the tropical plants do not grow well in Latvia.

My grandmother taught me a lot about beauty. She would show me a little flower from the field or the garden and say, „Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful? Why did God make it so special? Do you notice how every flower and plant is so unique? Why did He want so much diversity?” She can spend hours just looking at the designs and colours.

It teaches me to slow down and to stop and to look. Look closely! See it, touch it, feel it, smell it… The creation has a message which is much louder than any loudspeaker and much brighter than any billboard or neon sign. It is all around us. It gives us assurance and peace and joy.

There is a story that compares us to the flowers of the field and tells us that we are beautiful and special and loved. If these flowers which are so fragile and temporal are created so beautiful, how much more are we… the very image of God.

IMG_1831

Discovering empathy, hospitality and embrace

When I was 18 years old and left home for the first time, I stayed in Oslo, Norway. I went to help some relatives of mine with childcare and they gave me an opportunity to experience the beautiful Norway and its culture. During the week I went to study Norwegian in a class for immigrants.

This was my first real cross-cultural experience and I still remember many of the life lessons learned. There were many nationalities in our class but two ladies puzzled me. They always seemed sad and looking at them, I could not understand the look in their eyes. I thought to myself, “Why are they so sad? Aren’t they grateful? Aren’t they happy to live in Norway? This is a wonderful country.”

One of the ladies was from Croatia and the other was from Lebanon. We had times during our class to share about our nations and cultures. And for the first time I started to grasp the word ‘refugee’… These women were refugees. One left her home because of the civil war in Lebanon and the other fled because of the Balkan wars. Of course, I had seen it on the news but I had never met anyone from those places. As they talked about the beauty of their home countries on the Mediterranean Sea, the food, the celebrations, I thought about the life they had left behind – home, career, family, and friends… and I started to understand their sorrow and sadness.

There were also three young guys I could not understand. They were Kurdish from either Iran or Iraq. We were about the same age but they struggled in the language class. Even with the alphabet. I started to wonder why they were so slow in learning and even thought that maybe Europeans learn ‘faster’. Until one day I realized that they were illiterate. They told me, “We know a lot about guns and fighting but we did not spend much time in school.” I was shocked and ashamed of my thoughts.

Some years later I met refugees again. This time in Cairo, Egypt and they had come from Sudan. I was with a team involved in literacy training for a teacher’s course. The leader of the teachers was a pastor. His name was Abraham and he was a very tall Sudanese man. What amazed me about the group was the mix of Christians and Muslims. I had never worked with a multi-faith group. They were trying to provide basic education to their children and united in their desires to build better lives. Even while living in exile.

We studied Jesus of Nazareth as one of the greatest examples of teaching through relationship. We prayed together, worked together. Sometimes they would sit in a circle and talk about the “difficult issues”. About the violence and poverty in their country (this was before South Sudan became independent); about the ethnic and religious conflict; about Christianity and Islam; about the challenges to relationships. I would sit and listen and observe their faith. They wrestled with the difficult questions with such grace.

Everyone has a story and every life’s journey is special. Some of the journeys are simply unbelievable. Yes, there are things that are very difficult to hear and to comprehend; there are things that break your heart as you listen, but we must listen. We must give the time and space.

Some people hesitate because they are not sure if you really care. Some people find it too difficult to recall or they want to just forget it. Still, learn about the life they left behind; the people, the culture, the landscape, the food, the smells, the music … and learn to celebrate it with them!

Sudanese 7

The weapons of peacemakers

This title may sound strange – does peace and weapons go together? Let me explain what weapons I have in mind…

Last week I participated in an international forum called “State of Europe” which focused on many of the issues and challenges facing Europe today. It took place in Riga, Latvia on May 9 which is celebrated as Europe Day (I talked about the roots of Europe Day in my last blog). Also many people in Latvia but mainly in Russia and a few other nations of former Soviet Union celebrate it as Victory Day. Victory in WWII over the power and aggression of National Socialism…

As I reflect on these two celebrations, I come to personal conclusion… Victory Day celebrates winning the war because people sacrificed and the Nazi Germany was overcome and ‘destroyed’ … Europe Day celebrates winning the peace because the foundations were forgiveness and reconciliation.

Tragically in Latvia the victory over Nazism did not bring peace because Latvia was then ruled and oppressed by another totalitarian regime and ideology – totalitarian communism. The ‘war’ was won but peace was not… In some ways we are still catching up.

Winning peace is much harder then winning a war. Because peace is a state of mind and heart. Peace is restored relationships. Peace is a strong will for common good. Peace is embrace and inclusion. Peace is repentance. Peace has no personal or national selfishness. Otherwise the hatred, bitterness and the old grievances are just buried and can be re-resurrected again and again. Sadly we can see this through the history of humankind.

The peace in Europe for so many decades is an amazing achievement and we should not take it for granted. But there is still some unfinished business and we talked about it during the forum in Riga.

One of the most significant historical persons whose lifestyle was a personification of winning peace was Jesus. Even people who do not believe in his divine claims or who do not follow his teachings know that he is famous as a peacemaker. We know that he talked a lot about inner and social peace. He also taught and showed people how to do it. How to be at peace with God, with ourselves, with others and with the created order…

And one of the important weapons in this process is acknowledging the truth. The truth that we are not at peace in many areas of our lives… The truth that our brother has something against us and it is our responsibility to go and reconcile… The truth that there is a much better way than becoming fearful, aggressive or pretending that there is nothing wrong…

But the strongest weapon is love. There is no fear in love. Love is sacrificial. Love loves enemies. Love binds everything in unity. Love is not self-seeking. Love fulfills the law.  Love rejoices with the truth. Love hates evil.

If we care about winning the peace, let us choose our weapons very carefully.

IMG_2136

Rwanda’s road of thankfulness…

Few days ago our friend tagged me in his post #TURASHIMA. It is a Kinyarwanda word that means “We are thankful”. Rwandans and friends of Rwanda are invited to reflect on Rwanda’s last 21 years and express why they are thankful. My friend invited me to join this campaign!

I feel blessed to be considered a friend of Rwanda, ‘Land of a thousand hills’ even though I have not had the chance to visit this beautiful country yet. I met my amazing Rwandan friends during our reconciliation studies in England and they have impacted my life in so many ways. It is April and it is the time of the year when Rwanda grieves the terrible tragedy of 1994. My friends survived the genocide and each has an incredible story.

DSCF0467With their permission I hope to share some of their stories in the future. But they are not ‘survivors’… they are artists, story tellers, peacemakers, leaders, advocates, truth seekers, brothers, sisters and dear friends and simply beautiful people.

Olivier is Olivier! Just like his famous saying, “Life is life”. He is very wise and deep thinker and a good leader. He is a true advocate for the voiceless and becoming a very thoughtful filmmaker. His experience of surviving the genocide as a street kid gives him great compassion for the fatherless. He encourages me when the hard questions of life get too heavy. I will insert the link to his short video #Turashima

IMG_0473

Antoinette is too much fun. She is beautiful inside and out, strong and passionate. Her laugh is contagious and she knows how to celebrate life. She is a great dancer (well, all Rwandans are great dancers) and she gives the best hugs. I know Anto gets very sad in April, missing her loved ones who were killed in 1994. I am so thankful for the way she loves God and people.

IMG_6260

Noel is a man of so many talents. Artist, filmmaker, songwriter, worshiper… and a smooth dancer, too. He even tried to teach Gary some moves with no success but we had great fun. He can get anyone to join, to sing and to smile. But he also likes to dig deep and ask provoking questions others are afraid to ask. And guess when is Noel’s birthday? Christmas, of course!

Then there is Immaculee, Michael, Fidel, Innocent and Godfrey. Everyone has taught me so much about life, relationships, God’s faithfulness, joy, pain, forgiveness and hope against all hope. These things you cannot learn from the books or lectures.

‘Murakoze’ (thank you!) for being who you are! ‘Murakoze’ for being a part of these ‘peaceroads’! Cannot wait to dance with you, my friends, again and have some great celebrations. Bring out that African drum… because there is so much to be thankful for!  #Turashima